Never too old to learn


photo credit: VOA

Old dogs don’t learn new tricks, goes the saying.  But is the popular belief backed up by evidence?  Higher propensity to learn seems to correlate rather with environmental factors rather than with neurological ones.  New Scientist recently (24 May 2013) featured an overview of the research, debunking the myth.

Environmental factors are more important than age in successful learning.  Children have more time to focus on learning, benefit from superior pedagogies and more personal attention.

Many researchers believe that an adult’s lifestyle may be the biggest obstacle. “A child’s sole occupation is learning to speak and move around,” says Ed Cooke, a cognitive scientist who has won many memory contests. “If an adult had that kind of time to spend on attentive learning, I’d be very disappointed if they didn’t do a good job.”

One study by Yang Zhang at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis that focused on the acquisition of foreign accents in adults suggests we may simply be suffering from poor tuition. When the researchers gave them recordings that mimicked the exaggerated baby talk of cooing mothers, the adult learners progressed rapidly.

Physical condition plays a big role in ability to learn, explaining the often perceived correlation between age and learning ability.

Over the past few years, it has become clear that poor physical fitness – including factors such as obesity and cardiovascular health – can be as damaging to our brains as they are to our sex appeal, reducing the long-distance connections between neurons and shrinking the hippocampus, which is involved in learning and memory.

This holds some lessons for adults trying to learn new skills and knowledge:

Children are continually quizzed on what they know – and for good reason: countless studies have shown that testing doubles long-term recall, outperforming all other memory tactics. Yet most adults attempting to learn new skills will rely more on self-testing which, let’s be honest, happens less often.

Adults can hamper progress with their own perfectionism: whereas children throw themselves into tasks, adults often agonise over the mechanics of the movements, trying to conceptualise exactly what is required. Instead, you do better to take a carousel approach, quickly rotating through the different skills to be practised without lingering too long on each one. 

#ET821 What kind of education for what kind of development?

This is the first blog post for activity 1.1 in ET821 (Education for Development) at the Open University (UK).  Comments are, as always, warmly appreciated.

Development is a broad concept that may mean different things to different people.  It can be interpreted as a vision of a desirable society (‘developed nation’), as a historical process (‘development of a country’) or as a series of actions (‘doing development in a country’) (Thomas, 2000).  Most people would agree nowadays that industrial development and economic growth are cornerstones in the development of a country. On how this can be achieved opinions diverge.

The traditional debate between neoliberalism (popular during 1980s) and structuralism (popular during 1970s) focused on the need for capitalism versus state planning to achieve economic growth.  Current debates centre more on the degree and form of state intervention.  Keynesian policies to prop up demand, create employment and restore confidence in times of crisis. Protecting nascent industries from external competition through import tariffs or state subsidies.  Creating a welfare safety net for those who lose in the capitalist jungle.  Or limiting negative effects on externalities such as environmental quality.

However, economic growth (or GDP per person) is arguably not the only determinant of development. The UN’s Human Development Index takes life expectancy and mean and expected years of schooling into account.  Sen (1999) argues that these are not just important because of their positive effect on economic growth, but as constituent elements of development themselves.  Development for him is the expansion of substantive freedoms through elimination of sources of un-freedom such as lack of access to health or education, and political and social barriers.   Education not only serves to promote economic growth, but has positive effects on other freedoms such as health, political freedom and social inclusiveness.  Moreover, access to education is a freedom in its own right, helping people to fulfil their potential.  He distinguishes human capital (productive abilities) from human capabilities (ability to lead different types of lives), the latter being the fundamental aim of development.

I would argue that expanding these freedoms requires a strong form of capitalism, creating a ‘level playing field’.  The problem in Cambodia is that political and business elite distorts capitalism through monopolies, price controls, import tariffs, lack of good quality public education and health systems, rejecting juridical and media independence etc.  For example, good quality education is only available in expensive private schools (and abroad), protecting high-quality jobs for the happy few who can afford such an education.

The vision on development has implications on the kind of education system we want. An education system that primarily supports economic growth focuses on employable knowledge and skills, standardisation and early classification of pupils.  A system that focuses on empowering people’s potential will have a broader curriculum, invest in non-employable skills such as arts, support differentiation and give special attention to pupils with disabilities.  It’s hard to say which one is best.  Cambodia has been growing at rates close to 10% for the last decade, society is changing at breakneck speed and living standards between what parents and children have been used to is enormous.  In that regard, it might not be surprising that students tend to see business, marketing, ICT and engineering as the only study options, rather than humanities or exact sciences.  They take extra lessons to improve in skills that they hope will improve their chances to participate in the growth rollercoaster such as English, Korean or Mandarin, and presentation skills.


  • Thomas, A. (2000) ‘Meanings and Views of Development’ in Allen, T. and Thomas, A. Poverty and Development into the 21st Century, Oxford, OUP and The Open University, pp. 23–48.
  • Sen,A. (1997) Editorial: Human Capital and Human Capability, Word Development, 25(12), pp. 1959-1961
  • Sen, A. (1999) Development as Freedom, Oxford, OUP, pp. 3–12

Pedagogical Knowledge for Mathematics: Consequences for Effective Professional Development

(c)svwWhat knowledge do mathematics teachers need in order to teach successfully?   In a first blog post I looked at the concept of pedagogical content knowledge of mathematics.  In the second I discussed research attempts to measure teachers’ knowledge and link it to students’ learning outcomes.  In this one, I write about the implications for teachers’ professional development.  In a next and final blog post, I will try to relate the first three blog posts to the South African context.

Traditional forms of professional development such as workshops and lectures, tend to be top-down, one-off activities, focused on transmitting ‘new’ ideas of teaching and learning. Research shows that such isolated and piecemeal models of intervention bring little significant change to teaching practices and student achievement (e.g. Borko, 2004; Cohen and Ball, 1999). Recent initiatives of teacher professional development follow a ‘socially and culturally situated process of knowledge construction.’  This implies more attention for collaboration, discourse, reflection, inquiry and application. Research indicates that effective professional development requires continuous interactive support over a substantial period of time, should focus on specific educational content under guidance of an expert adopting a hands-off role and revolve around artefacts that help fostering a sense of ownership with teachers (Borko, 2004; Shalem et al., 2013).  Communities of Practice form an attractive theoretical framework for this kind of activities.  This view aligns well with the situative vision on PCK, as ‘knowledge-in-action’ that cannot be separated from the classroom context.  Regular school-based professional development not only has the advantage that it limits teachers’ time away from their classes, but it also promotes involvement from the school management. New teachers are often asked to comply with established practices in the school, regardless of what they learnt and appropriated before (NORRAG, 2013).

Some illustrations of teachers’ training formats that incorporate these principles are lesson study (Sibbald, 2009), curriculum mapping (Shalem et al., 2013) and mentoring programmes (Nilssen, 2010).

Curriculum mapping is a collaborative activity during teachers seek to align what is taught in the classroom (‘enacted curriculum’) with what is expected in state or national standards (‘intended curriculum’) and assessments’ (‘examined curriculum’).  Shalem et al. (2013) report on a curriculum mapping project for basic education mathematics teachers in South Africa (DPIP).  The main objectives of this project were:

  • Improve use of (inter)national assessments by teachers
  • Enhance alignment between enacted and intended curriculum
  • Develop communities of practice based on a joint enterprise and artefact creation
  • Clarify teacher expectations about intended learning outcomes
  • Improve interpretation of an outcome-based curriculum (previously in place in South Africa)

Lesson study has Japanese roots and is based on joint lesson planning combined with observation lessons to refine teacher understanding of all details surrounding a particular lesson.  A detailed lesson plan is collaboratively constructed, tried out and discussed several times, with members of the lesson study group taking turns teaching the lesson.  Positive effects on both content and pedagogical knowledge have been published.  However, the method is time-consuming and requires a collaborative culture within the school.  Initiatives such as in Chile, where a law has been proposed to link test results of teachers’ content and pedagogical knowledge to their salaries, are likely to have an adverse effect, promoting competition among teachers.  Hattie (2009) identifies collaborative work by teachers in preparing and evaluating their teaching as one of the top factors affecting learning.

Ball et al. (2001) suggest that the ideal course would to witness an outstanding fifth grade mathematics class, complemented by later study to extend and make more explicit a global and overarching perspective on the lesson topic.  In fact, Seymour and Lehrer (2006) suggest that PCK for mathematics develops with experience, as a teacher supplants general heuristics with more concrete representations and ‘interanimated’, contextualized combinations of teacher and student discourses develop.

These findings pose challenges for teacher professional development in developing countries.  In countries where many donors are active and that lack a framework for in-service training, such as Cambodia, organizing such a coherent system of regular professional training is challenging. Donors may set different priorities, timeframes and implementation frameworks. In the best case, organisations can organize joint trainings and follow-up activities, as in the cooperation we had with the Stepsam2 project from the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA).  In the worst case, teacher trainers and teachers are overwhelmed by a plethora of one-off workshops, each reducing valuable available time in school. A vision for teacher professional development and a framework wherein various initiatives can be fit is necessary to enhance the quality of professional development, improve alignment with educational goals and to find a balance between time for teaching and time for learning.

Selected references:

Ball, D.L., Lubienski, S.T. and Mewborn, D.S. (2001) ‘Research on teaching mathematics: The unsolved problem of teachers’ mathematical knowledge’, 4th ed. In Richardson, V. (ed.), Handbook of research on teaching, Washington, DC, American Educational Research Association, pp. 433–456, Available here
Borko, H. (2004) ‘Professional development and teacher learning: Mapping the terrain’, Educational researcher, 33(8), pp. 3–15.  Available here
Shalem, Y., Sapire, I. and Huntley, B. (2013) ‘Mapping onto the mathematics curriculum – an opportunity for teachers to learn’, Pythagoras, 34(1), Available here

Seymour, J.R. and Lehrer, R. (2006) ‘Tracing the Evolution of Pedagogical Content Knowledge as the Development of Interanimated Discourses’, Journal of the Learning Sciences, 15(4), pp. 549–582.